We seem to be running out of letters to name successive generations. After Baby Boomers, came Generation X and then the Millennials (aka Gen Y), who are now succeeded by Generation Z.

Whether or not one finds any symbolism, omen or irony in this is beside the point. What is important is to ask a question: in what kind of world will those born in the 21st century grow up? Will the automation of everything leave many people behind, bringing despair and disappointment? Will the realization of one’s potential no longer be defined by career success or measured by net worth? If and when it becomes unnecessary for a significant proportion of the working population to be working, will we be able to adapt our value systems to allow for guilt-free leisure, encourage more creative exploration and recognize the value of lifelong learning?

Just days after Amazon introduced its new product, Amazon Go, it made its first commercial delivery by drone. The fantasy world of tomorrow with flying cars and cashless stores is becoming the mundane reality of today - all too real for people whose livelihoods are threatened. Just imagining a scenario where the jobs of cashiers and retail salespersons in the US are fully automated would add 7.5 million people to the ranks of the unemployed. In another example, whether it’s Uber, Google, Apple, Tesla or any other company bringing viable driverless technology to the market, if this technology becomes commonplace a further 3.5 million jobs in America could disappear in a heartbeat. By comparison, since the beginning of the 21st century, the American economy has been adding 800,000 jobs per year on average. Loss of just those two narrowly-defined professions could undo the equivalent of 14 years of job creation.

Beyond those vivid examples, a widely-shared blog post on the World Economic Forum’s Agenda platform projects that roughly half of all jobs will be lost to automation in less than two decades. One could take solace in looking at past experiences where some vocations fade away, but new ones emerge in their stead. Many analysts argue, however, that things will be different this time. If those predictions come true, and we are indeed headed for a jobless future, now would be the right time to kick off a policy discussion on how we can prepare for it.

In 2013, an era before Amazon Go and autonomous vehicles that seems both recent and distant, researchers at MIT identified a phenomenon they called a “great decoupling”, where the gap is widening between gains in productivity and new employment creation. In other words, growth in economic output – more products and services for everyone – may not necessarily require more human effort, if this trend continues.

Image: World Bank Development Report

If Airbus could 3D print a model airplane today, what does that mean for highly skilled manufacturing jobs tomorrow? Anyone who is using a smartphone to manage a bank account, book travel or read the news, must recognize the extent to which our own habits have changed and how many jobs we have personally rendered obsolete. Various tasks that humans used to handle are now executed by a device that fits in one’s pocket. Harvard Business Review analysed the latest trends and came to an unsettling conclusion in its headline: “Technology Will Replace Many Doctors, Lawyers, and Other Professionals.” A recent McKinsey study found that “currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45% of the activities people are paid to perform.”

Just as we intellectually recognize that the world of tomorrow will have much less employment, or at least much less of what we define as employment now, a rhetoric of job creation continues to dominate our political discourse. This proverbial tomorrow may take a decade or two – or five – to arrive, but, undoubtedly, some version of it will and burying one’s head in the sand is no solution. Focusing on the skills necessary to compete for yet-to-be-invented jobs is only part of the puzzle. As the gap widens between population growth and automation, and between job creation and the needs of our machine-powered future, we have to begin making serious adjustments to maintain social cohesion.

What if continued automation of work, be it legal research, medical diagnostics or writing newspaper articles, delivers productivity gains that can well be distributed among the population without the need for everyone to contribute in a traditional way (i.e. by holding down a job)? Should such a future be imagined, it will require a major paradigm shift in how our society is organized, how we define contribution, where we find fulfillment and how we draw meaning from our daily activities.

U.S. President Barack Obama takes a look at a 3D printed Shelby Cobra car during a tour of Techmer PM, a plastics manufacturing company in Clinton, Tennessee January 9, 2015.  With Obama is Managing Director of Techmer ES Tom Drye. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque  (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS EMPLOYMENT TRANSPORT) - RTR4KSE4
US President Barack Obama takes a look at a 3D printed Shelby Cobra car
Image: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

A question being vigorously debated is how a person could support themselves when they are not expected to be working. The unconditional basic income or “digital dividend” is a concept that is gathering momentum and some jurisdictions have either toyed with the idea or are already piloting it. “The political debate needs to engage the taboo topic of guaranteeing economic security to families — through a universal basic income,” writes David Ignatius for the Washington Post.

This novel policy proposal is often contrasted with welfare and arguments are made in favour or against. The problem with the discourse is that it is framed in the terms of today’s situation, where policies are designed to discourage free-riding of some on the efforts of others. What we should instead consider is a situation where all humans are free-riding on the efforts of machines. The latter don’t create demand and that creates a serious conundrum for our economic system. More than a century ago, Henry Ford anticipated this debate when he postulated that: “It is not the employer who pays the wages. Employers only handle the money, it is the customer who pays the wages.”

As radical as the universal basic income idea may sound, it is, in strict terms, a simple technical solution to a largely understood social problem. It will be much more difficult to imagine and institute a new value system where unemployment is not stigmatized. Adopting norms in a society, where one’s contribution is no longer defined by economic output, is a challenge of a different scale and complexity. To address it, before societal tensions boil over, we will need a ton of courage, a lot of creative thinking and a great deal of policy experimentation.

Neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris asked a million-dollar question in his Ted Talk on AI: what happens when we invent a “perfect labour-saving device, which can design the machine that can build the machine that can do any physical work, powered by sunlight, more or less for the cost of raw materials?” The intelligence explosion that Sam warns us about poses a whole different set of questions, if and when it comes. I will not attempt to address it now, but there are a few ideas we could start with in anticipation of a time when the scope and scale of need for human efforts in producing economic output begins to decline.

  • In the spirit of Responsive and Responsible Leadership, we must begin by openly acknowledging and then facing the reality. As political careers are made and broken on the promises of job creation, it will require a great deal of courage for our leaders to take responsibility and initiate a frank debate on the possibility of a work-free future.
  • The intellectual framework within which we look at our economic systems also needs to change. We can start by redefining GDP to better account for non-compensated contribution, such as childcare and housekeeping or, better yet, move towards a wider matrix, such as a social progress index or any other methodology that recognizes human contribution and progress in new ways.
  • One of the simplest and yet most complicated questions to ponder in a world free from traditional employment is: what will we, humans, do with our free time? It would be good to ease our way into it by looking at a six-hour workday and other policies that Sweden is introducing “to increase productivity and make people happier.” Shorter work days will not just help prevent burnout, they will allow people a space to find other activities from which they can derive meaning. For those who are employed, a job isn’t just a vehicle to earn one’s living, it is a means to address the basic human need for belonging. Exploring how this need could be met outside of the workplace would be a worthy undertaking.
  • An individual’s ambition is today often conflated with professional aspirations and then measured by one’s career success. The ambition of the future could potentially be viewed through the prism of building one’s capacity for imagination and aspiration to learn, generate and exchange ideas. Popularizing the idea of sabbatical breaks across all professional fields, beyond just academia, would help us make this a smoother transition.
  • All of the above efforts would have to go hand-in-hand with addressing rising inequality and recognition of the “spiritual crisis of the modern economy”: “where failure [to find a job after losing one] is a source of deep shame and a reason for self-blame.”

The imagined future where humans may not have to work, as machines will be taking care of an ever-widening range of our needs and wants, is not assured, but is highly probable. We can debate the timeline and keep stuffing this difficult conversation into a can to kick it down the road, but what would be more constructive would be delving into this debate headfirst, trying out new policies, learning from one another and shaping our jobless future to minimize its discontents. Our kids, the Gen Zs, will thank us for it.